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The challenge of defining feminism was encapsulated by the celebrated English writer Rebecca West when she remarked, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” But if feminism is notoriously difficult to define, most would agree that it is based on the struggle for equal rights and legal protection for women.

Thankfully, much progress has been made in transforming deeply entrenched assumptions about gender, and the specific human rights of women are increasingly accepted within societies; including the right to have control over and decide freely on matters related to sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

However, these hard-won rights are not only insufficiently upheld in many countries – they are also threatened by demographic, cultural and economic change. For example, the current financial crisis has particular consequences for women. The effect of free trade on women has been considerable, especially in developing nations where women are seen as cheap labour and drafted in to low skilled, low paid, flexible work. Despite social and employment rights in the EU to help women combine work and family life – flexible working, more maternity rights and part-time work - women remain over-represented in precarious jobs which make them particularly vulnerable.

The dominant male culture of the global political economy continues to exclude women and the feminist perspective from key decision making processes on issues such as financial and economic management, free trade and development, conflict resolution and health. Women and children often suffer the worst effects of conflict, poverty and humanitarian catastrophes, yet women are under-represented in most government and commercial bodies. Women still carry out the majority of unpaid work in the home and, on average, work considerably more hours than men.

The barriers to women’s political participation are numerous and pervasive: expectations to conform to stereotypes, undervalued contributions, lack of confidence, resources or access to claim positions of power, the patriarchal bias of political parties, structures, systems and procedures. The threat of gendered and sexual violence is ever present. And even in developed societies, women are often not taken seriously, or paid equally, in their work.

Feminism is about encouraging profound cultural shifts towards more equal and flexible definitions of gender, putting women at the heart of decision-making, adequately addressing the specific needs of women through government measures to eradicate poverty, provide good health care, and counter negative portrayals and sexual objectification of women in the media.

Feminism is very much about men too - both sexes benefit from more flexible definitions of gender. Men can feel equally trapped by strict paradigms of masculinity which bear little resemblance to the reality of their feelings about themselves. For example, many men have been exasperated at governments’ lack of action to address the disparity between the sexes when it comes to childcare – given the assumption that women are always the primary carers.

Measures to encourage equal shouldering of family responsibilities are certainly crucial to the wide reaching feminist agenda, as are strategies to encourage female participation in politics, improve conviction rates for sexual violence, give women in the developing world more control over their fertility, and provide specific support networks and gendered health facilities for those that need them.

Additional resources

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Author: Caroline Lucas